Future of peer-to-peer file sharing networks remains uncertain

Many developers might be moving toward providing content legally for a fee.

JP Leider

On the heels of Sharman Networks’ $115 million settlement with major movie studios last month, the peer-to-peer community is in a tizzy, with its future uncertain.

Sharman Networks owns and distributes Kazaa Media Desktop, once among the most popular peer-to-peer applications on the planet. A peer-to-peer system allows individual users to directly transfer bits of or entire files to another user.

The future is unclear for peer-to-peer, especially for those who get free music and movies, as the main developers of peer-to-peer software are trending toward providing media legally and for a price.

Phil Armstrong, a spokesman for Sharman Networks, said the company decided to settle as it is eager to move forward with the “next generation” of peer-to-peer software.

“We’re hoping to roll out some new technological applications in the next several months that will make more files available to Kazaa users,” he said.

These files would be licensed to Sharman Networks for distribution, Armstrong said.

Technical details of the next version of Kazaa Media Desktop are not available, but Armstrong said users should expect a fall release.

Perhaps a greater threat to the purveyors of illegally obtained copyrighted or licensed material, however, is BitTorrent’s efforts in courting major studios to distribute movies with BitTorrent technology.

BitTorrent is one of the most-used file-sharing applications in the world. In the United States, estimates place BitTorrent traffic at anywhere from one-third to one-half of all Internet traffic. Worldwide, file-sharing rates account for as much as 70 percent of Internet traffic.

BitTorrent co-founder Ashwin Navin said the outlook for peer-to-peer is positive.

“There’s a bright future for P2P simply because quality in the size of files is growing, and the cost to deliver them is not falling,” he said. “I think every major retailer of digital content in five years will be using peer-assisted technology to deliver content.”

Although Kazaa Media Desktop once competed well for users against BitTorrent, usage has fallen in past years, possibly because of implementation of spyware in Kazaa and the prevalence of deceptively named files.

BitTorrent now looks to compete with audio behemoth iTunes.

“ITunes is really a big advertisement for the iPod – I own an iPod, I love the iPod, and I think a lot of people love their iPods, but the only reason I have iTunes is because I have an iPod,” Navin said.

However, Navin said he is not sure iPod is going to be the “coolest piece of hardware” to play media in a few years.

“The Apple ecosystem is only as good as its weakest link,” he said.

File-sharing and the U
In past years, internal file-sharing at the University has prospered, partly because of MyTunes and OurTunes, software that allow iTunes users to download music shared by other users. But the system largely responsible for file-sharing of the legal and illegal variety, is simply known as the Hub.

David Hedges, University alumnus and Hub creator, said the system was not created for distributing copyrighted material.

“Transfer of information does not mean breaking the law,” he said. “There are obviously people who are going to abuse any system like that.”

Aside from becoming a means for exchanging ideas and files, it was interesting to see the culture that came out of the Hub, Hedges said.

“Before, if everyone was using Kazaa or Napster, no one knew anyone else,” he said. “With the Hub, there’s a sense of camaraderie and friendship because everyone attends the University.”

Hedges said he hopes students at the University will continue to benefit from the Hub or a comparable system.

“I know there continues to be a great demand for such an outlet – it’s a fantastic community, a fantastic forum for discussion and a great way to get ideas and new material out there to students,” he said.

Another, perhaps larger, facet of file-sharing at the University is the external one. Although external file sharing still occurs at the University, the worst might have passed.

Steve Cawley, University associate vice president and chief information officer, said the University used to receive upward of 80 or 90 notices a month that students had shared or obtained a copyrighted file.

The notices have dwindled down to about a dozen a month, he said.

The University continues to alert students to the penalties of illegally obtaining licensed material, Cawley said.

The University plans to pilot in the next year a program that would increase users’ file storage capabilities to 5 gigabytes.

“We absolutely want to discourage students from using this to distribute copyrighted material,” he said. “This space is meant to be utilized for the pursuit of their academic interests, not to break the law. “

Cawley said the program should become widely available during the fall 2007 semester.

Andrew Odlyzko, director of the Digital Technology Center, said a professor at the center is developing a new form of distributed computing known as “grid” technology.

“Grid computing is an approach that uses all the scattered resources on the Internet,” Odlyzko said.

Distributed computing already is common, most notably in applications such as SETI at Home, but grid computing is slightly different.

Grid computing could be more sophisticated in the way tasks are distributed, Odlyzko said. In a network of computers, based on what the computers are capable of, tasks are distributed as is appropriate.

“We are not developing the next Kazaa or BitTorrent,” he said. “(We are) developing generic tools that would distribute resources over a network. It’s a basic toolkit for grid computing.”

While people associate file-sharing with illegal transfer, there are many legitimate applications, he said.

Odlyzko said peer-to-peer is “the essence of the Internet.”

“The Internet has been peer-to-peer from the very beginning,” he said. “Any user could reach to any other user. I feel that is going to be the future.”

BITTORRENT PRESIDENT TALKS WITH DAILY
Ashwin Navin, president, chief operating officer and co-founder of BitTorrent, spoke with the Daily for an article on file-sharing about the recent initiative to court major studios to distribute movies with BitTorrent, other goings-on at the company, its future and that of peer-to-peer. What follows are excerpts from that interview.

First off, how goes the film partnership initiative?
The technology has earned the respect of all the technology groups within the film studios, and now we’re in the process of approaching each studio individually on a business level to talk about how we can put BitTorrent to work for their business.

Beyond film, what do you see as the future of BitTorrent?
It’s the most efficient way to distribute large files on the Internet. The applications that we are focused on today are the most difficult things to do without BitTorrent. Things like film and TV, video games and large software packages are probably the most difficult things to distribute in a digital environment. They are things we’re uniquely able to do with the efficiency of our protocol.

Has there been any development on the technology project in the UK for testing high-speed transfers?
We did a deal with a cable company in the U.K. to basically make BitTorrent a platform for video on demand in the cable on demand. We’re in trials, and trials are a glowing success.

I’ve seen various estimates as to the total percentage of Internet traffic that BitTorrent-technology uses. What does your company estimate that figure at?
Depending on where you are in the world, it’s anywhere from one third to 70 percent. It’s somewhere between one third and one half on any U.S. high-speed (connection).

You’ve talked about the various types of software and video that you plan on distributing in the future. How do you plan to compete with the audio behemoth that is iTunes?
ITunes is really a big advertisement for the iPod. I own an iPod, I love the iPod. I think a lot of people love their iPods, but the only reason I have iTunes is because I have an iPod. And the Apple ecosystem is only as good as its weakest link. I’m not sure that in a few years the iPod is going to be the coolest piece of hardware to play my media. The other interesting thing is that for the content producer, the artist, Apple has created a template that serves the hardware that everyone has to play with. And as an artist, I don’t want someone telling me I have to downgrade the quality of my expression, whether it’s a piece of video or audio, just so it can fit on the iPod and can be played on a small screen with less-than-CD-quality audio. As an artist, I feel like I would be looking for a distributor that allows me to leave my expression intact and is the highest quality or highest fidelity format.

What is the future of peer-to-peer?
I think there’s a bright future for P2P simply because quality and the size of files is growing, and the cost to deliver them is not falling. So, another way to think about that is the revenue-per-megabyte of transfer is falling faster than the cost-per-megabyte of transfer and that’s where peer-to-peer comes into play because of its efficiency. I think every major retailer of digital content in five years will be using peer-assisted technology to deliver content.

What’s your take on the Kazaa settlement?
I think Kazaa has a huge brand name, it’s recognized in many parts of the world, but if you look at the traffic and the users that have gravitated to Kazaa over the last year, it’s pretty dismal. The people that were running Kazaa toward the end fell into the trap of loading up their software with spyware and they really pissed off millions of people. I think Kazaa has a lot of work to do to repair that damage to its brand name.

Before BitTorrent, Kazaa was the number one peer-to-peer software in the world. Do you expect again that you guys will be competing for consumers?
I don’t think so. Kazaa is where BitTorrent was two years ago in terms of deciding it wanted to be a mainstream media distributor. I think you identified earlier who we would consider our competition in the marketplace today.

How will you court young people who, for many years, have been able to get essentially any content they wanted online for free, even if it was copyrighted material?
There’s a better way to do what they’re already doing. A lot of our users associate BitTorrent with what you want, when you want it, in high quality. But when you’re going through the piracy channels, there’s a very unpredictable experience associated with it. Sometimes the files are dubbed in the wrong language, sometimes the downloads are slow. Sometimes downloads just don’t work because there aren’t enough seeds on a particular download. There’s a certain amount of pain that any one of us that use BitTorrent a lot are willing to go through to get something. If the same thing that you want is available right now and you need it tonight, so you can watch it on your TV or PC, and it’s priced correctly, I have to believe a significant percentage of people are going to take that approach.

What kind of speed and cost are we talking?
Speeds would be guaranteed or predictable, and they’d be fast. There will always be a lot of seeds on any one of our torrents.

By fast, can you put it in a ballpark?
That really depends on your connection. On the University campus they’re going to be really good. For the guy who is on a DSL line, it’s not going to be as great as it could be. But our plan is to deliver the content faster than anyone else.

What should a standard cable user expect?
The objective is to be able to saturate your download capacity. We just want to be able to operate as fast as we possibly can.

How do you plan to deal with the major BitTorrent sites that provide torrents for copyrighted files?
If you look at any one of these sites, they offer whatever it is that’s really popular at this moment. But if you’re looking for foreign, if you’re looking for niche or indie content, it’s a terrible experience. In a commercial offering, it’s important to be comprehensive. It’s also important to have a good user experience, and it has to be predictable in its results. You’re not going to convert 100 percent. There are some people who love free stuff, and are never going to go to a paid avenue. For those that are BitTorrent users today, but can’t find the things they really want, and if it’s priced correctly, they are going to buy.

HUB CREATOR SHARES HIS VIEWS ON THE HUB AND THE FUTURE OF PEER TO PEER
For Wednesday’s story on file-sharing, David Hedges, University alumnus and creator of the “Hub,” a file-sharing system massively popular among students at the University, reflected with the Daily about his time with the Hub and speculated on the future of peer-to-peer file-sharing. What follows are excerpts from that interview.

What is the Hub?
The Hub was created around fall of 2003. Basically, there was not a good way to exchange files on the University campus. Because of throttling performed by the University, it was virtually impossible to exchange any files at any decent speed. It was obvious that there was a need for some other method to accomplish this. There was a clear demand for it. That’s where the Hub came from. It started with a couple users, and grew to thousands of users.

Is the University aware of the Hub?
I cannot say with 100 percent certainty whether the University is aware. However, it would startle me if they were unaware of this. They pay people tens of thousands of dollars to oversee their network and I’m sure they’re incredibly qualified.

What did the Hub grow into by the time you left the University?
Like I said earlier, it started with a couple of users, and exploded from there. By the end of each successive year, it would continue to have a steady flow of new users. There was continuing demand. Many of the users would not return as they would be living off-campus. However I know many, many people would stay on campus so they could access the Hub.

How much traffic did the Hub see?
All of the traffic for any transfer stays within the University network; it’s entirely peer-to-peer. There’s no real way to gauge that from the server’s perspective.

What were your thoughts on the vehicle you created?
I was pleased. I was excited to see the Hub grow and prosper; I was happy the students at the U had a means to exchange ideas and information in a way that had been hindered by the University. It was also interesting to see the culture growing because of it. Before if everyone was using Kazaa or Napster, no one knows anyone else. With the Hub, there’s a sense of camaraderie and friendship because everyone attends the University. I know people who have met their girlfriend or boyfriend on the Hub.

Did you create the Hub to share copyrighted or licensed material?
Definitely not. There’s so much information that is freely available, as well as local artists that don’t have a contract yet. They want to have a way to get their music out. There’s a big following of amateur video on the Hub. Transfer of information does not mean breaking the law. There are obviously people who are going to abuse any system like that; I think BitTorrent is starting to gain that sort of legitimacy and recognition as a means of file transfer. I believe Microsoft in its new operating system is going to be using a system very similar. I think that really shows that peer-to-peer is not an evil technology. It’s a very useful idea, and has plenty of useful applications.

You created this technology, one that could allow illegal file-transferring. What did you do to prevent users from transferring copyrighted files?
The technology has always been there since the days of floppy disks. They had an ad campaign, “Don’t Copy that Floppy.” For the most part, people see content that they like, and they buy it. Recent studies have said people who download buy more than their counterparts who don’t download. With a system as large as the Hub, it’s impossible to moderate the content that every user connecting has. Like I said, none of the transfers go through the server, so there’s no way to block anything on the server. But if people on the Hub saw people pasting serials on the chat, corrective actions was taken.

We’ve talked about the Hub, but what’s the future of peer-to-peer?
There are a couple different directions peer-to-peer is going. Firstly, I think that BitTorrent or that general method is a fantastic technology for the distribution of new and very popular files just because the way technology is structured. It prospers when a tremendous number of people are trying to download files simultaneously. That said, I don’t know how well that will work for a movie studio trying to distribute a movie from 1992 across the Internet as a pay-per-download. I know some of the large networks are trying to move to a scheme like that. I think Kazaa was talking about a legitimate pay-per-download with some of these networks. I’m not sure how well that would work because it would depend on a lot of people having the same paid copy of the movie. While there are a lot of people who do pursue that scheme, there are so many methods of digital rights management that are frustrating legitimate users who want to buy these movies. They’ll buy the DVD and put it in their player and for one reason or another the digital rights management prevents it from playing it on their DVD player, where the rip they borrowed from their friend played just fine. I think movie studios and music industry need to start being more aware of what their legitimate users are asking for and demanding, and get with the times as it were to cater to those needs.

Do you see the government intervening in peer-to-peer?
From what I’ve seen so far, it’s been moving in that direction with a somewhat more governmental involvement on these lawsuits and subpoenas and trying to shut down major distribution nodes for this nefarious activity. I think with the current Admin., the music and movie industries, grievances are being heard and accepted well by the government and I can’t speculate whether or not that will change in the future. I’m not sure that’s how I feel the government should be spending my tax money. I think it’s been shown that the current tactics of RIAA and MPAA are not having as substantial a result as they wish. Illegal downloading is still going on; it’s certainly not going away in the next few years. But I think that there is so much more they could do to capitalize on the technology that’s available that so many people would be willing to do if it was convenient, easy and priced right to get the content on the net that was reasonable to play on their computer, Set Top Box, iPod and any other device they want to play it on. That would be greatly beneficial, to change their strategy rather than bully someone for a couple thousand dollars to settle a lawsuit.

What do you hope the Hub becomes now that it’s out of your hands?
I hope very much that students at the University can continue to benefit from either the Hub itself or a system like it. I know there continues to be a great demand for such an outlet. It’s a fantastic community, a fantastic forum for discussion and a great way to get ideas and new material out there to students. These students at the “U” are the future and they are the people who are going to be making these major policies and they may be the ones to run the RIAA in 20 years. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for users to participate and learn and experience new music, new material and help each other out. I hope it sticks around for a long time.